6 Tips for Keeping Your Senior Pet Healthy

It can catch you by surprise. One day, your dog is an overly enthusiastic young puppy and the next, someone tells you he’s a senior. But while some senior products are labeled for dogs aged seven and up, the actual age varies. A larger dog may hit “senior” status as young as five, while smaller dogs can sometimes go all the way to age 10 or 11 before officially becoming seniors.

Whether your vet would classify your pet as a senior or not, it can never hurt to shift to healthier habits as your dog gets older. Often a pet’s health in those later years is closely tied to how active and healthy he was throughout his whole life. Here are a few tips to help you and your pet ensure you get the most time possible together.

6 Tips for Keeping Your Senior Pet Healthy

Work With Your Vet

In your pet’s younger years, unless something goes wrong, you’ll visit your vet once a year. At that visit, your dog will get a quick checkup, a heartworm test, and the annual vaccinations recommended to keep your pet safe and healthy.

But a senior dog’s wellness exam will be a little more intensive. Here are the four major elements of a senior wellness exam:

  • Complete blood count – This test takes a look at your pet’s red and white blood cells and looks for any abnormalities. The red blood cells carry oxygen to your pet’s tissues, white blood cells fight infection and reduce inflammation, and platelets help the blood to clot.
  • Biochemistry profile – Your vet can get a quick idea of the health of your pet’s organs and tissues using this test. If the results show any abnormalities, your vet will recommend more testing.
  • Urinalysis – Your pet’s urine can provide important information about the health of his kidneys and urinary tract. This test is combined with the other diagnostics for an overall view of your pet’s health.
  • Thyroid testing ­­– If your pet has had a sudden change in energy level or weight, your vet may recommend this test. It especially targets hypothyroidism, a common condition in older pets where the thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough of the hormone that helps regulate the body’s metabolism.

Testing can vary from one vet to another, but you’re the one in control. Make sure you’re aware of the tests your vet is conducting on your pet. Also, you may find that as your dog gets older, once a year isn’t enough. Scheduling a senior pet wellness visit every time you renew a six-month medication like heartworm treatment can help identify issues early.

Keep Your Pet Active

As with humans, active dogs have a better shot at a longer, healthier life. This can be challenging as your pet ages, though, since he’ll inevitably slow down. You may find that daily walk at the park has to be shortened, for instance. If you have access to a pool or body of water, swimming can be great for pets with joint issues.

But a large part of keeping your senior dog healthy comes down to making sure he’s at a healthy weight. Your vet should weigh your pet at every wellness visit. Make it a point to ask for your vet’s advice on your dog’s weight. A dog’s ideal weight varies by breed, and your vet has the professional expertise necessary to let you know if you might need to cut back.

If you want to do a quick check yourself, you can tell a lot about your pet’s weight by standing over him and looking down at the shape of his body. Ideally, your dog will have a defined waist between a straight chest area and rounded rear. If your dog is oval in shape, he’s probably packing at least an extra pound or two. Also look from the side and make sure your pet’s stomach doesn’t sag.

Your pet’s most recent vet records may have his weight listed, but that won’t be up to date. This chart will give you a general idea of what your pet should weigh based on breed, assuming your dog is a purebred. If you need an updated total, weigh your pet by standing on the scale holding him, then setting him down and weighing without him. Subtract your weight from that first total and you can get an approximate idea.

Focus on Good Nutrition

You’ve probably noticed, if you have a senior pet, that senior dog food is labeled for dogs ages seven and older. There’s a reason for that. A pet’s nutritional needs change as he gets older, primarily because senior pets don’t tend to be as active. Since a healthy weight is an important part of good senior pet health, it stands to reason that you’d need to cut back on calories. Senior dog food also tends to have a higher fiber content.

That said, it’s important to take your veterinarian’s advice when it comes to choosing a pet food. You can ask during your senior pet health check or simply pick up the phone and call. Pet food store employees will recommend the products that are popular with customers, not knowing anything about your pet’s unique health needs.

Mealtime isn’t the only thing that may undergo some changes. Your vet can recommend the best treats for your pet’s needs, but experts say that you can do just as well with nutritious human foods like carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower as you can with packaged dog treats.

If you go with the packaged variety, though, look for a treat that’s high in protein and made from natural ingredients. For pets that suffer from joint pain, there are treats specifically formulated to reduce inflammation. These treats usually have ingredients like fish oil, collagen, glucosamine, and curcumin.

Make Some Household Adjustments

As your pet gets older, it’s important to take a look around your house and identify things you can do to make things easier and more comfortable. In addition to senior pet care through wellness visits and diet and nutrition, you can also help your pet get around.

If you allow your pet on your furniture, keep in mind that jumping on and off raised objects may become more difficult as your dog ages. You can buy ramps or stairs for your pet’s favorite areas, including your bed and sofa.

For pets that spend time at ground level, consider adding a little padding to those surfaces. There are pet beds that provide extra support through technology like memory foam. You can even find some that are designed to keep arthritic pets warm while they sleep. If your pet likes to hang out in his kennel, add a little extra padding to the bottom to provide more support for aching joints.

Look for Signs of Issues

Spotting a sick senior dog isn’t always easy. Dogs tend to adapt quickly to any changes, so you may not even notice yours is suffering from a health issue. Here are some signs of trouble that are commonly missed in sick senior dogs:

  • Lethargy – Yes, pets do slow down as they age. But if you notice a sudden, significant slowdown, it’s important to mention it to your vet. Lethargy can be a symptom of a heart or kidney issue, among other health conditions.
  • Change in gait – Joint and hip pain may not slow your pet down at all. However, dogs tend to compensate for the poorly-performing limb by shifting weight to other legs. If you notice your pet hopping or struggling to use one of his legs, get it checked out, even if it only happens occasionally.
  • Vomiting and diarrhea – All pets will occasionally suffer from stomach upset. But if it persists over more than a day or two, or is combined with symptoms like lethargy, make an appointment for an exam. Also look for sudden changes in your pet’s stool.
  • Urination issues – Pets can suffer from bladder and urinary tract issues just as humans can. A sudden increase in urination or incontinence could be a sign of an underlying issue.
  • Change in appetite – As with lethargy, a decrease in appetite is worth noting. A sudden change in weight needs to be checked out with your vet. Even a gradual decrease in weight, if combined with increased thirst and appetite, is concerning since it can be a sign of diabetes.
  • Change in behavior – Dogs can suffer from cognitive decline just as their human owners can. Disorientation, trembling, pacing, and insomnia can all be signs of cognitive issues.

Provide Plenty of Love

One of the reasons dog life expectancies have increased over the past decade is that pets are no longer just pets. They’re family members. This demonstrates how important that social connection is to a long, happy life. In addition to pets being happier and better cared for at home, their owners also ensure they get wellness checks and take their prescribed medications.

But “love” has many benefits in addition to your pet’s overall well-being. Taking time out of your busy day to play with your pet can be good for both of you. Dogs can get some valuable exercise through a short game of fetch or a walk at the park. If your pet is good with other dogs, you might also consider scheduling some playtime, either with pets of a neighbor or at a local dog run.

As your dog grows from puppy to adult to senior, it’s important to occasionally rethink the toys, treats, and food you buy to make sure they’re the best for his current age. Your vet can help you identify ways you can give your furry friend the best chance at a long, healthy life.

Want more tips on training and caring for your pooch? Subscribe to my podcast, where I and my guests help you learn more about your pet.

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